Russian bedtime stories aren’t meant to put you to sleep— they keep you awake, eyes wide as china teacup saucers, whitened fingers clutching the sheets. Those are the tales about creeping, sentient disembodied hands, men in black worlds playing black pianos and smiling with green glowing teeth, Baba-Yaga witches who stomp around the forest in log cabins on chicken’s feet. Even when they are not explicitly horrifying (the scariest stories, as we know, are true), these books prepare kids for the world to come. A whimsical book of poems, Vadim Levin’s Silly Horse does this particularly well—that’s Amazon’s prettified translation, though really the adjective is just “stupid.” In one poem, the titular pony becomes ill from being too vain to ruin her galoshes in the rain; another peripatetic poem follows a little puppy as he walks…and walks…and walks…and finally stops walking and just, well, grows up. From these rhymes I received a preview of the Adult world: full of sniffles and rains, clocks moving too fast to catch up, and the years of winding, wending and wandering that define this whole growing up thing.
My bookshelves were populated with grimmer stuff so I didn’t grow up with The Paperbag Princess, the 1980 book by Robert Munsch turned senior project by Molly Houlahan, CC ’14 (book and lyrics), and Benji Goldsmith,CC ’15 (music and lyrics). The set had all the watercolor hues of an illustrator’s palette: dappled yellows, pinks and blues flowing into one another, and a quilt-wearing two-headed lizard narrator who springs the tale from page to stage. But while the story appeared at first to fall into familiar tropes—two warring kingdoms, an arranged marriage of young royals, a wicked step- mother—the script soon started to deviate. Fairy-tale notions of evil, sexuality, narrator-reader relationships and vanity, sud- denly, like the storytelling lizard, grew two heads and developed far more com- plexity. Conventionally, it can be said that the fourth wall was broken several times; intellec- tually, though, it might just as well have never existed. The issues of the characters—self- esteem, identity crises, social pressures—are realer than ever, not at all fantastical
And yet, prior to finding its way to the Whitney Humanities Theater, The Paperbag Princess would have been difficult to locate on Yale’s campus. A simple search in the Yale library system yields a befuddled Orbis suggestion—perhaps you mean “paperback princess”?
Yale, it appears, has had its growing pains with children’s literature. When Todd Gilman, a librarian with a specialty in children’s literature, was hired in 2001, no comprehensive database for the genre existed. The Velveteen Rabbit and Amelia Bedelia were being purchased, but only for a teacher preparation program, not for serious collecting or academic study. Gilman proceeded to make his way through a lengthy list in the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, buying Newbury’s and Caldecott’s award winners by the dozen. He also brought Overdrive, an audio and ebook library, into Yale’s domain, enabling access to many popular titles. The main consumers, it appears, are community members and their fami- lies—children’s books for children.
Why was the collection so meager to begin with? “The idea for a long time was this: we do think it’s important to provide leisure reading, but the books themselves weren’t research-level,” Gilman explained. On the research-level, though, the genre is gradually es- tablishing itself. Professor Michele Stepto, who teaches “Literature for Young People,” explained that children’s books can and should be viewed as a real genre of literature. “I see Children’s Literature as a genre for grownups and young adults, conversing with whatever remains of their ‘inner child,’ the person who once read and delight- ed or hated these books,” she said. There are many breadcrumb paths to follow back into time, but a tattered Bridge to Terabithia is a prime candidate for a reader to understand how he or she has changed. The pages may have yellowed in hue, but this displaced return to a text can uncover the process of maturity, the concept of responsibility, and silliness in our society.
So where does the “Once upon a time” of The Paperbag Princess take us? Stepto remembers retrieving the book near the plastic bags, in fact: “I haven’t read The Paperbag Princess since I picked it up at the supermarket checkout 20 or more years ago. It seemed fairly harmless, but it was all about clothes, as I remember, and that seemed a bit deflective.” While the book may initially make for a superficial reading, the current production, like the rest of us, has matured far past its origins. The musical’s return to the text is one of confrontation; taking a paper world and building, challenging and expanding it.
Of course, not every book would make a good libretto for a performance—far be it from me to suggest a live-action staging of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. But ponies in galoshes and princesses in paper bags shouldn’t be categorized as exclusively for ages, say, four to eight. The conversation with our inner child is, as Stepto suggested, a productive one. It’s an opportunity for self-reflection, and above all else, an invitation to imagine.